When James Martinson started a campaign to get the University of Notre Dame to implement a porn blocker on campus, he made the same arguments social conservatives have for decades: that pornography is prostitution — that it’s harmful to those in it and those who consume it.

With that the 22-year-old senior from Basking Ridge, N.J., touched a nerve that anti-porn activists before him may not have, garnering more than 1,000 students and faculty at the school to sign a petition asking the Catholic university to block porn. His message has been picked up by other student activists across the country — including at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania — who say it’s time colleges take drastic steps to change the sexual culture on their campuses.

“It really doesn’t matter what your political views are," he said.

“This is much more of a cultural issue, and that really transcends any kind of political divide,” said Martinson, who has embraced the language of feminist movements, decrying rape culture and asserting that decreasing porn consumption could help reduce sexual assault

Problem is, the language of feminist movements has changed. And there’s disagreement among social scientists about whether porn consumption is actually related to sexual violence. Additionally, a filter of this sort — the likes of which have been explored by smaller, religious schools and companies, including Starbucks and McDonald’s — could present a slew of First Amendment and censorship issues.

While it would only prevent a person from accessing pornography on the school’s wireless network, a viewer could still use cellular data, another wireless network, or simply step off campus to access the content they want.

For those in favor of blocking out porn, eradicating it isn’t the point.

“I’d love to block it all out, but ultimately it won’t stop the problem,” said Theresa Dierkes, a junior at Penn who’s pushing for a similar filter. “I’m hoping it will just get people thinking.”

Notre Dame hasn’t implemented the filter, but a school spokesperson said in a statement, “Pornography is exploitative and not a victimless crime," adding that the school already has proscriptions against using university laptops and other school property to access pornography, and that "regardless of filters, we expect our students not to patronize porn sites in the first place.”

A Princeton University spokesperson said the school isn’t considering a network pornography filter. Penn officials declined to comment.

Left: Penn student Theresa Dierkes. Right: Notre Dame student James Martinson.
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Left: Penn student Theresa Dierkes. Right: Notre Dame student James Martinson.

Religious conservatives have long opposed pornography, but it has also divided the left. In the 1980s, radical second-wave feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, who saw pornography as inherently misogynistic and as a violation of civil rights, partnered with social conservatives to implement ordinances banning the content.

Feminism’s third wave is decidedly more sex-positive. Whitney Strub, director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Rutgers University in Newark, said anti-porn activism that uses the language of feminist movements “doesn’t reflect 21st-century feminism at all" and is simply a new framing in an effort to modernize anti-porn discourse.

“If you talk about rape culture and you’re not talking about patriarchy, you’re not talking about rape culture,” Strub said. “You’re co-opting it as a rhetorical tool.”

There’s plenty of violent material out there that’s more readily accessible than ever before, and Strub said most feminists who argue against anti-porn attitudes have complicated views on the matter and recognize there’s racism and misogyny present in some material.

But there isn’t scientific consensus when it comes to connecting pornography use with sexual violence. A 2014 study used survey data to conclude that 46 percent of men and 16 percent of women between 18 and 39 intentionally viewed pornography in a given week.

In the time internet access has proliferated — as well as awareness about sexual violence — overall sexual-assault rates have gone down. Since 1993, the rate of sexual assault and rape has fallen 63 percent, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

John D. Foubert, an expert on campus sexual assault and author of How Pornography Harms, said that while dozens of studies have linked pornography and sexual violence, there’s no consensus that pornography consumption causes sexual assault — in many cases because data are often unreliable. People lie, and biases creep into science.

“So many students are using pornography that it makes it difficult,” Foubert said. “You can’t find a good control group for a study of people that aren’t using porn because there are very few who aren’t looking.”

He said sexual assault becomes more likely when high pornography consumption is combined with other characteristics such as hostile masculinity and “a high desire for impersonal sex.”

David J. Ley, a clinical psychologist who wrote Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, said 5 percent to 7 percent of all men exhibit those characteristics.

Further, he said, there’s no evidence restricting access to porn reduces the risk of sexual violence, even among that 5 percent to 7 percent noted above.

“Pornography is just a sexy shiny object, which distracts us,” Ley said, “and it's easy to blame porn as opposed to addressing the misogyny that pervades our modern media and social issues.”

Jaclyn Friedman, a feminist writer and activist whose latest book, Unscrewed, examines the state of sexual politics, said advocating for a pornography filter is “wrongheaded.” She said if activists want to decrease consumption of violent pornography, they should follow the lead of existing anti-sexual-violence groups and advocate for better sex education.

“If social conservatives on college campuses want to do something on sexual violence, they should start by" allowing survivors to lead the conversation, Friedman said. “There are very few [survivors] who are calling for a porn Wi-Fi ban.”

Friedman also said online censorship implemented by some media companies often goes too far and, in its quest to block adult content, ends up filtering out necessary sexual-health information, especially in LGBTQ communities. Recently, Tumblr banned adult content on its platform, frustrating users, many of whom saw it as a positive space for sex workers and LGBTQ users.

Tumblr and similar companies, though, are largely free to regulate content as they see fit. That doesn’t apply in the same way to colleges.

Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said a pornography ban at a private school like Notre Dame or Penn likely wouldn’t run afoul of the First Amendment. But she said both schools — like most colleges and universities — promise students free speech in official written materials. Courts have held that colleges can’t ban certain types of content because it could be considered breach of contract.

“If schools are promising in great language they will provide them free-speech rights," she said, "it subverts those promises to say it’s only speech the university deems appropriate.“

Martinson said he’s typically opposed to overreach, but doesn’t see a pop-up that blocks pornography as such. Instead, he said, it’s a way for an institution to lead a cultural change.

“When the culture says, ‘No, this is bad,’ " he said, "people follow suit.”